Consumer demand for sustainable materials and building techniques is key to driving change, say industry experts at a roundtable hosted by Architecture Today and Medite Smartply at the COP26 House.
Consumers have become acutely aware of the damage that single-use plastics like straws and carrier bags have on the planet. Now that awareness must be expanded into the materials and techniques used in house-building to help buyers make well-informed choices about their homes and put pressure on the industry to “level-up”.
“We need a plastic straw moment with housing,” says Roly Ward, National Account Manager at sustainable timber manufacturer Medite Smartply. “That level of education is what’s needed.”
Ward was among a group of architects, engineers and sustainable construction experts gathered in Glasgow for a COP26 fringe event on how to reshape practice to address the challenge of climate change. The event chaired by Architecture Today editor Isabel Allen was hosted in partnership with Medite Smartply and took place at the COP26 House, a demountable house designed by Roderick James Architects to Passivhaus principles that will go on to form part of an affordable housing development in Aviemore.
Alongside Ward, our guests were O’Donnell Brown Architects co-founder Jennifer O’Donnell, Evelyn Choy of Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) and HASSELL, Ingrid Berkeley from Max Fordham, COP26 House designer Peter Smith of Roderick James Architects, Gary Clark of HOK and chair of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group, and Matt Kennedy, the Director of Climate and Carbon at Arup.
The COP26 House is located at The Sustainable Glasgow Landing, a brownfield site in central Glasgow. Photo by Callum Bennetts
Savvy buyers can create a demand for more sustainable homes that use renewable energy, have rain-water harvesting or are constructing to Passivhaus specifications if they become common in public discourse, say the group.
“Consumer expectation is one of the good things to come of all of this – educating people about what you could have in your home,” says Ward. “All these things are are available, and demand from the consumers because they know about them because they’re on the news will create a shift.”
“Consumers don’t have to accept what they’re being spoon fed because there are options out there,” adds Peter Smith, architect of the COP26 House.
That consumer pressure needs to go hand-in-hand with legislation to create a fairer playing field, especially when it comes to volume house builders, says Gary Clark. “Housebuilding is not a level playing field. If you’re trying to compete with the bottom of the market, it’s very difficult. So we need to level up, but that’s where consumer pressure comes in. I think that’s going to change things.”
“We’ve got to push Government. As part of the change in building regulations, we’ve asked for embodied carbon to be put into the UK version – and we’ve heard some good news that that may be being picked up,” continues Clark. “Health and wellbeing metrics have got to be part of that as well and I think the pandemic will be an open goal for the Government to do that.”
He points to Goldsmith Street, the 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize winning Passivhaus scheme by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley for Norwich City Council, as an example of how to set a clear public benchmark for sustainable architecture.
“On the back of the award, the practice has picked up orders throughout England from councils,” says Clark. “It’s the final piece of the jigsaw because it’s the whole life cost and value of what we do. Once we start to get the evidence based on that, everything will change because it’s a no-brainer.”
Like Clark, Jennifer O’Donnell believes that wellbeing is an often overlooked metric in valuing UK property.
“The focus on wellbeing is an important one because buildings are about people,” she says. “The pandemic certainly shifted everybody’s mindset, the machine stopped, everything changed, so it’s offered a really optimistic spring board to go forward on.”
“If we start thinking about in the context of homes and buildings about people, rather than what they’re worth financially – we think of our homes as an asset financially in this country, but they contribute hugely to our wellbeing – then maybe that’s something that’s going to help us in terms of where we need to get to.”